The Washington State Patrol (WSP) is trying to learn more about a problem that touches many Native American families.
They want to know if the state should do more to address a crisis of missing and murdered Native American women, which some are calling an epidemic.
WSP has been traveling the state meeting with tribes and asking for their stories. They are learning there are gaps in how law enforcement tracks missing people.
Earth-Feather Sovereign is among a generation of younger Native American women calling attention to the problem, which haunts Washington state tribes.
“I would say everybody knows somebody who is missing or been murdered,” said Sovereign.
Captain Monica Alexander is leading WSP’s effort to study the issue.
“I want to hear those stories, we want to hear that information,” said Alexander. “It's a big issue, but we have to have a starting place.”
Alexander is on a fact-finding mission which has taken her to tribal lands across the state. In October, she visited Snoqualmie Casino. Chelsea Hendrickson, whose aunt was killed 20 years ago, participated in the discussion held at the casino.
“Unfortunately, it is a common story across nations, across tribal communities, and within native women's societies,” said Hendrickson.
One issue which keeps coming up in the discussions is that there are gaps in the various databases used to track missing people.
“The numbers and the names don't comport with the official records which are being kept by law enforcement,” said Claudia Lawrence, a member of the Hopi Nation, who is also community mobilization director for Seattle Against Slavery, an organization combating human trafficking.
“All of these systems, whether voluntary, or whether it's uploaded by a family member or law enforcement, they will never talk to each other at this point with technology the way it is,” a state official told the crowd.
Most tribes in Washington don't have access to the National Crime Information Center, the FBI database that virtually every law enforcement agency uses to track cases, state officials told the gathering. As a result, police searching that database will not find relevant information about whether someone with ties to a tribe is reported missing.
“That's one huge thing,” said Alexander. “Everybody has their own database.”
The missing and murdered native women study started after the legislature passed a bill directing WSP to look into these questions. It happened, in part, because a growing number of indigenous women, like Sovereign, spoke up and demanded action.
“This affects us all, so we're all trying to come together to bring resolution to help protect our people better,” she said.
Sovereign says she was trafficked by a gang in Oregon in the 1990s and was only able to escape because friends rescued her. They did not involve the police.
“A lot of us feel hopeless that our voices will be heard,” said Sovereign.
She says that's changing now that others are raising their voices and state authorities are listening.
“Having this feedback and having this dialogue is so very important,” Alexander told the crowd at Snoqualmie Casino.
Alexander has a June deadline to report back to the legislature on what she's learned. Lawmakers will then decide whether to take action on the findings.
“I think we're being heard,” Lawrence said. “I think the concern is always, will there be next steps?”
Many people in native communities are not waiting for the state to take action. They've started Facebook pages with thousands of followers, soliciting tips about missing people.
But as it stands right now in Washington state, there is no comprehensive data collection system for reporting or tracking missing Native American women.